Cattle company balances science with old methods

They don’t walk around in white lab coats or use $4 words, but make no mistake about it: The folks at the Castalia Cattle Co. are all about the science.

“We are a fertility clinic for cattle,” laughs Cortney Holshouser.

Holshouser and her husband, Karl, work with owner Carm Parkhurst at the 175-acre operation offering artificial insemination, or AI and embryo transfer, or ET, services as well as selling bulls, replacement heifers, show heifers, cow-calf pairs and beef.

Key Points

• Among other services, Castalia Cattle Co. offers embryo flushing of cows.

• Embryos are graded under a powerful microscope as 1s, 2s or 3s.

• Company also offers AI service, and sells replacement heifers and cow-calf pairs.


The Castalia Cattle Co. is one of just three USDA-certified bovine collection/transfer facilities in North Carolina. This certification allows it to export embryos out of the country and assures that they pass stringent requirements.

They are in demand for a process known as “embryo flushing.” Females are injected with drugs to prepare them for the process, which involves injecting saline into the uterus and then “massaging it,” to create what Cortney refers to as an “opening of the valves.” The embryos, the size of a grain of sand, are caught in a filter and go under a 2500x microscope for inspection.

“The processing is next,” Karl says. “They go into a dish and under the scope to be found and graded.”

Parkhurst assigns grades at 1, 2 or 3.

“A 1 or 2 is at the quality [where] it can be frozen to be used at a later date. The grade has to do with the cell wall and the cell shape,” Karl says. “A 3 can be put in fresh, but would probably not be [saved for later use]. We have put some in two at the time and gotten nice twin heifers. If you’re selling these, people would only want 1 or 2 grades.”

Parkhurst says the average cow flushes about seven eggs. There’s more to the picture than just numbers, he adds.

“All females have the potential to ovulate more than they do,” Parkhurst says. “If they are not injected with the drugs to prepare them, one will become dominant and destroy the others. The hormone treatment we give them allows for the chance for more to survive — much the same way that fertility treatments in people often result in multiple births.”

All three say that while this process is not something exclusively done at Castalia Cattle Co. (and it can be done by private growers), there is an efficiency that is key to the operation.

“You could do all this at your facility, but here it is done when it needs to be done. It is very time-sensitive,” Parkhurst says.

Karl, who handles most of the shot treatments, is a punctuality stickler. “The donors get their shots twice a day, for four days, every 12 hours,” Karl says. “I do it at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.; then I know [the timing] is not a problem [if the process fails]. I don’t like to be even 15 minutes late.”

Customers can expect to pay about $700 to $1,000 for a flush, with the cost of the process, drugs and boarding figured in. A client may get 10 embryos that can be frozen, and can expect a pregnancy success rate of 60% to 70% out of such a batch. They also guarantee one pregnancy if a shipped embryo is put in by a certified technician.

“We check all the semen before we breed a cow, and that’s probably saved a lot of people from a disaster,” Parkhurst says. “We want to make sure it is alive. It costs a lot of money to flush a cow, and we want to make sure it’s right.”

Room and board

Another option for cattle producers is Castalia Cattle Co.’s AI procedure, with semen of the client’s choice and boarding of the animal. This runs about $75, depending on the length of time.

The company’s most commonly used breeds are black and red Angus, Hereford, Gelbvieh, Piedmontese, Red Devon, Belgian Blues, crossbreeds and even bucking cows. Most customers are in the Carolinas, but they are seeing more out-of-area clients as the business grows.

While the population can vary depending on the time of year, there are generally 150 head of cattle at the Castalia Cattle Co. at a given time. Often, it is just the Holshousers on site to move them.

“We use bribery,” Cortney says. “We use feed to move them, just driving the tractor with one of us on the back with feed. If we didn’t, we could never get a group like this moved.”

Karl adds, “Generally, we can walk in the pasture and put our hands on all of them. If they’re wild much after weaning, they’re gone from here.”

Parkhurst says you have to have that attitude to go hand in hand with the science side of the cattle operation.

“This is a lab. We have a ‘dirty side’ and a ‘clean side.’ Anybody that works in science can understand that setup. But that is just half of what we do here. Taking care of the animals is the other,” he says. “We are making a 1,400-pound cow produce something the size of a grain of sand. We feel that the extra TLC (tender loving care) while they are here, keeping them calm and maintaining positive nutrition, is what makes the difference — and a good animal.”

Brantley writes from Nash County, N.C.

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UNDER THE SCOPE: Embryos are found under a microscope and graded. All bull semen is checked prior to being used, to ensure the best chance of pregnancies.

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PINHEADS ARE LARGER: Flushed embryos are smaller than a grain of sand and have to be handled with small syringe needles, such as this one.

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TEAMWORK: Carm Parkhurst (left), Cortney Holshouser and Karl Holshouser use a combination of science and “old-school” handling methods to produce gentle, productive beef cows.

This article published in the September, 2010 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.